Saturday, June 06, 2020

1889 Institute: OK Legislature made no tough budgeting decisions during COVID-19


No Tough Budgeting Decisions during COVID-19
By Byron Schlomach

Governor Stitt has rightly called out the legislature for a complete lack of fiscal discipline in the last legislative session. The legislature’s budgeting cowardice has shown no bounds. Despite the shocks to the stock market of late, and the hit on already-challenged pension fund portfolios, the legislature diverted funds from them to keep the spending mill going. In the meantime, they also accepted something like a 30 percent pay raise even as they took two months off their legislative jobs.

Earlier this year, a newspaper editorial dismissed Governor Stitt’s fiscal concerns with, “The pandemic crisis isn’t a good time for a state budget fight.” One wonders just how devastated an economy must be before it’s justified to advocate for some government belt tightening.

Governor Stitt has acknowledged a rocky road ahead and hasn’t chosen to hide his head in the sand. The suggestion that budget cuts were in order after a couple of years of pretty free spending, and in the face of an economy devastated by a pandemic panic along with an oil price collapse, is more than reasonable. It’s necessary.

The legislature seems not to have wanted to be at the capitol doing business in the first place, with the pandemic providing an excuse to skip out on their jobs. Budget decisions made well before anybody had an inkling of what the overreaction to the COVID-19 would do to the economy, and before we realized just how badly oil prices would drop, have been allowed to stand.


But when times are bad and rainy day funds get used, it’s prudent to review spending and prioritize, fall back to absolutely necessary spending, and cut any fat. Though not a perfect analogy, if a family’s breadwinner loses a job, that family might have substantial savings, but they don’t spend all the savings while continuing to live as if the income is still there, at least not if they’re prudent. They cut back expenses and use the savings to provide for necessities. That’s because they don’t know when or by how much the income will come back.

What we do know, with absolute certainty, is that revenues for the foreseeable future will fall short. Now is the time to look for real savings. One way to do this is through restructuring, but this last legislative session ended with Oklahoma still having more agencies than states much larger than ours.

So legislature, why not acknowledge that Governor Stitt has a point? It’s your job to make tough decisions. If that’s not what you stood for election to do, or if you seriously thought you wouldn’t have to, please leave the legislature and let somebody else take office who is willing to make some tough decisions.

Byron Schlomach is 1889 Institute Director and can be contacted at bschlomach@1889institute.org.

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